Research Notes – The Great War (10) Plague Ship Leviathan

I’m researching The Great War for my current work in progress: a historical novel set partially during that time. To write the period accurately, I’ve been reading and studying the war and the surrounding events. Some of the older material I’m reposting in order to better organize it. I wrote this post in 2016 during my Spanish Flu research. The epidemic will play a central role in the historical timeline. I hope you find it interesting and don’t mind me recycling! ~ Meg

The early 1900’s and 1910’s saw the launch of many famous super liners –ships designed to carry thousands of passengers across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the Americas in  luxury and comfort. These were famous liners like White Star Lines’ Titanic and her sister ships Olympic and Britannic, Cunard’s Lusitania and Mauritania, and even larger –Hamburg-America’s Imperator, Vaterland and Bismarck. The Bismarck* would hold the title of largest ship in the world until 1935.

The three German ships had the ill fortune of being launched just prior to the outbreak of World War I and thus spent little time in the service of Hamburg-America before being laid up in port thanks to British domination of the seas.

It was late July 1914, when the SS Vaterland made her crossing to New York City, USA. When the guns of August began to fire, the return trip was determined to be unsafe, she was laid up at her Hoboken, New Jersey terminal and remained there for nearly three years.

In 1917, when the United States entered the Great War, the Vaterland was seized and rechristened as the SS Leviathan by President Woodrow Wilson. She would now be put into service transporting fresh American troops to the port of Brest in France to bolster the exhausted French and British forces.

By late September 1918, the second wave of the epidemic flu was beginning to spread through the troops destined for the front. The giant transport ships, with their confined decks and crowded bunks provided the ideal conditions for incubation of the virus. Circumstances aboard the massive troop ship Leviathan proved to be the worst of all.

On September 29, 1918, SS Leviathan left New York harbor for Brest, carrying 9,000 troops and 2,000 crew on board. By the following morning, the sick bay was overwhelmed with men suffering from the symptoms of flu. It took just three days for 700 more men to sicken and for one of them to die. Bunks were turned into makeshift sick beds. Healthy men were confined to less well ventilated quarters and the disease roared through the ship like a wildfire.

On the fourth day, October 1st, 2000 men had fallen victim to the dreadful disease. The official Navy report states that ‘pools of blood from severe nasal hemorrhages were scattered throughout the compartments, and the attendants were powerless to escape tracking through the mess, because of the narrow passages between the bunks.’

The ship docked in Brest on October 8, 1918 with 2000 men sick with flu and pneumonia, 80 had died and been buried at sea and those left healthy were desperate to get off the plague ship. Nevertheless, 280 of the ill men were too weak to get off the ship and 14 more died before the end of the day. Some 1000 of the remaining patients had to be carried via stretcher to the base camp from the wharf in a convoy that stretched four miles. The American influenza casualties eventually reached into the hundreds.

One interesting side note regarding Leviathan: her crew included Chief Quartermaster, Humphrey Bogart, future American film star. As the senior enlisted man in the Navigation Division, Bogart would have been on the helm whenever the ship sailed in or out of harbor.

Image via flickr

*This ship is not to be confused with the battleship Bismarck, commissioned by the Nazis in World War Two. This Bismarck was a passenger ship, was never actually launched before the outbreak of the war and later was handed over to the Allies as war reparations and rechristened as the HMS Majestic of the White Star Line.

Preparations For War: The British Expeditionary Force

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the British were an unknown quantity. Their Liberal government was horrified at the prospect of war. The Germans were counting on that queasiness to overrule the British commitment to uphold Belgian neutrality as promised under the London Treaty of 1839. The German invasion of France, as dictated by The Schlieffen Plan, depended on the armies being able to swing south through Belgium. On August 2, 1914, Germany demanded right of passage for their troops to march through Belgium. The Belgians refused. The Germans came anyway and Belgium found itself at war.

The British responded by delivering an ultimatum. Germany ignored it. They had delivered their own ultimatum to Belgium, in which they promised to leave their territory upon cessation of hostilities and to make reparations for any damage caused by the troops. No one believed that for a minute. Belgian Premier Charles de Broqueville said, “If Germany is victorious, Belgium, whatever her attitude, will be annexed to the German Empire.”

German troops entered Belgium on August 3, 1914 and Britain declared war on August 4th. Britain would enter a war in which she had not been directly affronted. German Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke knew the British would enter the war with or without Belgian violation. He said, “[England] … fears German hegemony and true to her policy of maintaining a balance of power will do all she can to check the increase of German power.”

The B.E.F. – British Expeditionary Force had first been organized in 1907. Behind the scenes, an inner circle of the British government had made greater commitments to France in case of war than was widely known to the public. Nevertheless, the commitment to the cause was to be rather small: four infantry divisions plus cavalry and artillery; no more than 100,000 men. Compared to the 2 million invading Germans, this was a drop in the bucket. However, in the beginning, British involvement was as important for what it symbolized -allegiance with France-  as for what it actually contributed. When asked the minimum number of British troops with which France would be content, the politician Georges Clemenceau famously replied, “One, and we shall take good care to get him killed.” The British plan largely consisted of falling in on the French left flank and following their lead.

By the time the B.E.F. reached position in Mauberge on August 20, the fighting was well under way. France’s offensive in Lorraine was in trouble and Belgium was being destroyed.

Preparations For War: Plan XVII

Like Germany, France had also designed a plan for war far in advance of the outbreak. Their vision was to be clouded by a thirst for revenge. They were still smarting from the loss of their territories in Alsace and Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870’s. And with their recovery in mind, the French committed to the doctrine of the all-out offensive.

In 1911, Plan 16 was adopted. It called for the build up of troops on the Eastern borders of France, quickly followed by a straighforward drive into the lost provinces. This strategy meant the armies would have to cross the Vosges Mountains of Eastern France. The mountains, while not particularly high, are rugged and rough, and at the time, lacked much in the way of communication facilities. It would not be easy country to traverse in the rapid attempt to gain territory.

One man recognized this problem –the new Commander in Chief of the French Army, General Victor Michel. He correctly predicted that a German offensive would come through Belgium, not through the Eastern mountains. He suggested that a new plan be devised that would take the French Army northwest into Belgium to counter the anticipated German move. He was promptly fired.

Michel was replaced by General Joseph Joffre, a large man whose best attributes were patience and a refusal to panic.

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Joseph Joffre via wikipedia

His version of a plan for war was a modified version of Plan 16, dubbed Plan 17, and kept two armies in reserve to monitor the southern Belgian border. Despite taking a possible German incursion through Belgium into account, the French offensive would still proceed to march through Alsace-Lorraine.

Joffre had made several mistaken assumptions regarding the course of the war: he thought Russian operations would have greater impact, he thought Britain would offer more help at the outset than they did and most tragically, he assumed the Germans had far fewer troops than they did. In fact, despite the early hints that vast numbers of German troops were massing north of the Ardennes, Joffre stuck to his convictions that the enemy didn’t have the manpower to concentrate that far north.

Thus it was that Plan 17 was put into action. On the Eastern offensive, the brightly uniformed French* –wearing the red trousers and navy overcoats of bygone days, their white-gloved officers with swords unsheathed leading the way– would sweep forward in long lines in perfect order. The German machine guns would open up and slaughter them.

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Photo my own – Paris Musee de Armie

This is a brief overview… there is so much more that happened in those opening days of war. I recommend for anyone interested: The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman and A Short History of World War I, by James L. Stokesbury. Header Image courtesy History Extra.

*The French quickly realized the folly of their hubris. Their traditional uniform had essentially put targets on their backs. The sky blue uniform which had been suggested in the years prior to the outbreak was rapidly adopted.